Homo sapiens means “wise man”. It’s the Latin term for our species that has developed medicine, written poetry, built skyscrapers, and walked on the
which, frankly, despite all of these and other feats of skill and ingenuity, suggests that calls into question how “wise” we may be.
Moon. It’s also the subject of the historian Yuval Noah Harari’s book
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind takes us swiftly through the history of Sapiens (Men), including the six other species (or subspecies, depending on who you ask), not including our own. The Neanderthal the most famous, but the revealing look to many tells the existence and possible stories of Homo floresiensis, who stood at average 3 foot seven inches on present day Indonesia and Homo habilis who, before us, existed in far greater numbers over far more acres of land. Indeed, the idea that we alone were able to build tools or live in small organized communities was not true, at least, when you consider the different species of men.
I won’t spoil for you the different theories of how Homo sapiens were able to stand apart and defeat the stronger and more numerous species of man, but Harari’s book was, for me, a greatly engaging ride through that history and various theories.
The Path We Wrought
Harari goes beyond the history of the different species of men and tells the entire history, well, up till now, of our specific species of man. The book is separated into four revolutions/major occurrences:
- The Cognitive Revolution
- The Agricultural Revolution
- The unification of humankind
- The Scientific Revolution
Harari, shockingly to me, doesn’t present these steps as steps graduating from each other to a greater existence. From a position that, to me, appears to be outside his role of a Sapiens observer, as in someone who wants good for the species of man, he laments that life was better before the Agricultural Revolution ever occurred.
You may argue, and you’d be right, that the Agricultural Revolution allowed the Homo sapiens to grow communities and multiply beyond what they could ever imagine. However, Harari argues, convincingly, I should add, that this revolution transformed the way men and women lived. Away from hunter and gatherers, Sapiens began building homes, cultivating crops and animals, and, to be honest, through their actions exterminated other species. They were so successful at controlling the environment around them that the number of species dwindled from what they once were so that our biodiversity is a fraction of what it once was. None of this appears on its face bad for Sapiens, look how numerous we are after all. So why would Harari see it as a bad turn in the story of history? Rather than telling us the story through the lens of the triumphs of Sapiens over nature, Harari appears to judge success and the value of actions of how it affects life for all living things. Sapiens are part of nature, destroying it is a systemic failure, not a success.
We Tell Stories
Harari continues the history of Sapiens by exploring the idea of how we use stories in our daily experiences “Stories” does not strictly mean structured narratives in books, but understandings through words that build the foundations and structures of our society, our relationships and our lives.
Harari takes this a step further than some may feel comfortable with, explicitly saying stories about fiat money are no different than stories of God. But regardless of your religious or spiritual beliefs, I think we can agree that much of what surrounds us is built off the foundation of stories. Money, for instance, relies on the story that it has a value. But a $100 bill is not physically more valuable than a $1 bill. Anything a $100 bill can do, say serve as a bookmark or as a coaster, can be done just as well with a $1 bill. We all use stories, invent stories, and believe in stories throughout so much of our lives.
To be certain, it’s not the physical abilities that make Sapiens the dominant species of the world. It’s not our opposable thumbs or our omnivorous teeth. Rather, it is our cognitive ability to tell stories, to have things that are not physically real, or perhaps are, and have them attain greater value in our society than they would otherwise that give us our dominance. Our stories of communities, of laws, of trust, of cooperation, of power, of strategies, and others allows us greater strength in numbers and alone than we could ever have otherwise. Hundreds of millions of Americans identify with one another as American, but they have met hardly a fraction of a percentage of them. It’s incredible that the story of America, among other stories of other countries and bonds, cannot unite so many strangers under one storied flag!
Sapiens is a fascinating book, and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of it. I wish it were stronger in the last section of the book, but if you’ve found any of the ideas and subjects I’ve talked about the least bit interesting, you’ll find Harari is excellent with exploring and developing these ideas. It’s a cathartic subject that truly humbles you as you realize there were many other species of man that once flourished on Earth. You begin to question the accomplishments of the past and what direction the future holds as we become more automated and infused with artificial intelligence.
And of course, for a person who believes strongly in the role of stories in the history of Sapiens, the stories he tells are powerful, persuasive, and, I believe, will shape how many think about our history, our species and our future.